From the American West came a group of visionaries who gave the American people and the world a picture of the grandeur of the North American continent. Much as the Hudson River Valley painters had done for the American Northeast (though they ranged westward as well), the photo-artists Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock and others established the American West as a place of free-ranging imagination. Where the 19th-century painters explored a physical frontier, the mid-20th-century photographers explored a spiritual frontier. Through their visions this landscape came to symbolize for everyone the highest aspirations of humankind in nature.
Wynn Bullock brought forth these new dimensions of landscape most explicitly, and now a major retrospective of his work is underway at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A., in collaboration with the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, through January 18, 2015. Just 20 years ago, a smaller exhibit of his work was held in Tokyo, Japan. I wrote a review of it for the Japan Times, and learned then that it had struck a responsive chord with the Bullock family. Just last week, thanks to Connie and Jerry Rosenthal of rfoto folio, Barbara Bullock-Wilson contacted me about reviewing the new Revelations book — and what a pleasure it will be to do so! As you will see from the 1994 review, I’ve been a fan of Wynn Bullock’s imagery for a long time. It has certainly inspired my photogravures, my way of seeing, and my sense of the dynamic relationship between the seen and the unseen. Here is the 1994 review:
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Making the Unseen Seen, Japan Times, January 23, 1994
The European surrealist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy asserted that photography can “make visible existences which can-not be taken in by the eye. “Far from being merely an inferior reproduction of human vision, it actually reveals something more than ordinary eyesight. The surrealists tried to represent such intangible essences by distorting the visual field — with dripping locks, time-lapse super-imposition, black/white reversals, and skewed perspective. Wynn Bullock, whose work is currently on view through Feb. 25 at Photo Gallery International, was an admirer of Moholy-Nagy and experimented along these lines in the 1930s and 1940s. But in ‘the 1950s Bullock came under another important influence: Edward Weston, the great practitioner of no-frills “straight photography,” who taught respect for the material surfaces of natural objects.
It was Wynn Bullock’s unique achievement to integrate these two radically different approaches without resort to gimmickry, to use ordinary scenes and objects to get to the unseen essence of things. His landscapes do not so much depict nature as personify it.
In one of the most memorable, Stark Tree (1956), the form of the tree is silhouetted against fog-shrouded hills, its limbs along with those of other individuals stretched toward the sun. Clouds reminiscent of Ruisdael swirl about the sun, illuminating the hills and creating a medium of communication between earth and sky. Sun, clouds, earth, rocks, trees are all possessed of an animating spirit and made visibly interconnected. Big Sur Sunset features no glorious radiance, no surf crashing over jagged rocks; it’s not your postcard sunset. But the faint suggestion of motion in the gentle surf, the play of light over a swaying ocean, watched over by the sun, make these elements of nature appear as active beings in the drama of life. In a later work; Untitled (1966), the setting sun spotlights a gathering of rocks at the seashore, seemingly in homage. With these three pictures one seems in the presence of some Druidic rite of sun worship, or as a being newly arrived on the planet — like a child.
Bullock’s series on children in forests personifies nature in a different way, placing the animating spirit in the child and inviting us to recall its innocence and wonder. The Child on Forest Road: (1958), whose attention is caught by something at the side of the road, pauses while sunlight plays through the canopy above, as if all the world were made for her pleasure. Similarly, with the child naked and alone beneath an enormous redwood, or peering into a maze of thistles, or face down on a bed of vine leaves in the forest. These pictures invite us to become that child, naked and alone but unafraid, taking part in the wonder and recognizing kinship with the rocks and trees. Yet another aspect of nature is personified in the female nudes in various forest and rural settings, living testaments to the sensual pleasures of Bullock’s Edenic landscapes.
Although Wynn Bullock lived in a photographically fertile area — Carmel, Monterey, Point Lobos, Big Sur — the photographic distance from his mentor Weston became increasingly evident from the mid-1950s onward. Bullock found as much photographic interest under the wharves off Cannery Row as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and other illustrious neighbors found in natural forms. In The Mast (1958), Sunken Wreck (1968), and other pictures, artifacts of an apparently lost civilization project from a formless void of wispy shadows on slithering fog.
In later works Bullock returned to his earlier preoccupation with light and with dynamic abstract forms: Tree Trunk (1972) appears liquid, flowing; Wood (1972) the locus of multiple interacting vortices. Nature’s personification dissolved back into the elements themselves, foreshadowing the artist’s own death in 1975. As always, he sought the inner essence of things.
Also at Photo Gallery International is a selection of photographs from Imogen Cunningham, whose career spanned seven decades and numerous styles, from pictorial to f/64. Whimsical humor and a lively sympathy with her subjects pervade her portraits of the icons of 1920-1960 photography. Here is Ansel Adams standing on a rock with his right finger pointed skyward, earnestly delivering The Sermon on The Mount. Bullock, given to space/time musings, appears as a kindly philosopher. A time-lapse multiple portrait characterizes the surrealist Man Ray. Stieglitz presides in his gallery as the uncompromising judge, and Edward Weston peers with typically sharp focus. Apt characterizations all.
Primitive people, it is said, refuse to be photographed for fear something of their souls will be revealed. Visit PGl and see why.
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Let the last ‘word’ be this marvelously eloquent image:
What better testimony of the poverty of words before these visionary revelations?